Oysters have long been the darling of the gourmet food scene, but did you know they’re one of the most sustainable proteins out there? In Portland, Maine, oyster growers are championing this ocean-filtering miracle morsel not as a luxury, but as an accessible protein that’s as tasty as it is eco-friendly.
Here’s the thing about oysters: they’re not immediately appealing—they look strange, floating in anonymous brine, trapped inside a craggy shell designed to look like a rock tumbling around on the ocean floor. But get past the strangeness of their presentation and you’ll be taken by their delicacy: that subtle sweetness of the meat, the slight chew of the belly, and the briny salt of clean, cold ocean water.
Due to concerns about climate change, many people are looking for ways to enjoy seafood sustainably. The answer is the oyster—a versatile, low-impact seafood protein. Oysters are native to Maine and have been eaten there for thousands of years, evidenced by ancient oyster middens—mountains of discarded oyster shells by the Abenaki tribes of Maine. “One of the beautiful things about oyster aquaculture is there is no feed, no antibiotics. It’s simply husbandry of the animal that would be living here anyway,” explains Jonathan Tercott, general manager of Glidden Point oyster farm in Portland, Maine. Plus, oyster beds are actually beneficial for the environment, filtering thousands of gallons of water every day and helping marine life to thrive. Today, there are over 150 oyster farms in the state, which sell roughly 11 million oysters annually.
As with nearly every industry, the pandemic complicated things. Restaurants, the primary client for most of Maine’s oyster farmers, shut down and canceled standing orders for oysters that were already sitting in wet storage, ready to be shipped. (For reference, it takes two to three years to grow an oyster to market size and every stage of the harvesting process is done by hand.)
In response to these roadblocks, many oyster farms pivoted to pickups or shipping oysters directly to consumers. Growers saw an increase in sales to customers interested in eating oysters at home. Through their Coastal Harvesters program, Glidden Point has transformed into a sort of oyster agency, connecting farms with eager customers. “On our river there’s probably a dozen pretty good sized oyster farms,” says Tercott. “We work together, we help each other out.”
Maine oyster growers want people eating more oysters—not just because it’s good for their business, but because it’s good for the environment, good for the local economy, and because oysters are just plain good. Tercott adds, “It’s definitely our mission to make oysters more accessible, and sort of de-luxurize them.” No more white tablecloths—just a bottle of Tabasco on the dock, the taste of the ocean, and spent shells tossed back into the water. As they say in Vacationland, that’s the way life should be.
Glidden Point offers seasonal farm tours and direct sales from their farm store an hour north of Portland. Visitors can order beer and wine and try a variety of oysters from farms around the coast of Maine through their Coastal Harvesters program. Picturesque picnic tables offer the perfect venue for visitors to spend the afternoon shucking (don’t worry, tools and tutorials are provided on site) with a view of the river, where their oysters were harvested. If you can’t make it to the farm, Glidden Point offers their collection online so that you can enjoy Maine oysters at home. Be sure to try the oysters from their neighboring farms, Norumbega, Johns Oysters, and Nonesuch, to taste the variety of Maine’s coastline.
This beautifully designed and light-filled dining room is a must on any visit to Portland. Waits for a table can be over an hour, so put your name in early and pop into one of Portland’s cocktail bars or wander to a patio along the water in Old Port. It’s absolutely worth the wait to sit down with a tiki cocktail, a fried oyster roll on a house-made bao bun, and the restaurant’s wide selection of Maine-grown oysters shucked to order and served by their friendly and knowledgeable staff.
Pre-order and pick up Emily’s Oysters from the Portland Farmers Market (631 Stevens Ave) every Saturday Saturday between 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., then stop by Maine and Loire for a perfect bottle of wine before heading to the backyard of your Airbnb, the beach, or one of the city’s nearby scenic lighthouses for a shuck-your-own lunch. Not sure how to shuck? Emily would love to teach you, and offers a video tutorial on her website. Alternatively, grill up oysters for dinner with some of your favorite produce from the market—they’ll pop open on their own when heated, and you’ll get to enjoy the beauty of a briny Maine oyster in a totally different way.
Island Creek Oyster is located in Duxbury, Massachusetts, but the farm and restaurant group have expanded their presence into Maine with a Portland wholesale buying station and raw bar, where they offer a variety of Maine oysters, tinned fish, and wine and beer to guests in person. They also offer an online selection of Maine and Massachusetts grown oysters alongside caviar and sauces from their restaurants.
If you’re road-tripping Downeast, as they say in Maine, Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery is a perfect stop for a last taste of Maine before crossing the border back towards Boston and other points south. Slurp some oysters alongside fried clams or a classic New England lobster roll at the picnic tables outside at this counter-service establishment open year-round.